Klee builds himself a little house of art in a realm somewhere between childhood’s innocence and everyman’s prospect of infinity.—Duncan Phillips, c. 1938
More than 80 years ago, in 1930, The Phillips Collection’s founder, Duncan Phillips, acquired the first work by Klee for the museum, Tree Nursery. With this purchase, the Phillips became the third museum in the United States to own a work by Klee, joining the Detroit Institute of Arts and New York University’s former Gallery of Living Art.
Phillips soon became a stalwart champion of Klee’s work in the United States. Between 1930 and 1953, he assembled 13 of Klee’s finest works in oil and watercolor spanning the artist’s career—a strong unit that remains a cornerstone of the museum’s permanent collection. Phillips organized a Klee solo exhibition in 1938 and a memorial exhibition in 1942. Over the following two decades, as Klee came to occupy a central place in the collection, his art became a prominent feature of numerous group and solo exhibitions and permanent collection installations, attracting increasingly receptive American artists and visitors.
Committed to bringing Klee’s art to a larger audience, Phillips placed his work on nearly continuous view after 1948, in what came to be known as “the Klee room” at the Phillips. “The Klee room” served as an abiding source of inspiration for the generation of American abstract painters working at midcentury, especially for Washington, DC-based artists Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland. In the words of writer Barbara Rose: “No one who has ever lived in Washington . . . can ever forget the impact of the Klee room at the Phillips Gallery.”